By Narayan Desai
For the children living with the Mahatma at his Sabarmati Ashram, he was a friend, guide and a sensitive disciplinarian who could communicate with them in their own terms
The Satyagraha Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi stood on the bank of the broad Sabarmati river, across the city of Ahmedabad. ‘This is a good spot for my ashram,’ Bapu used to say. (We called him Bapu, meaning ‘Father’).
‘On one side is the cremation ground. On the other is the prison. The people in my ashram should have no fear of death, nor should they fear imprisonment.’
My earliest memories of Bapu are intertwined with those of the Sabarmati prison. Bapu would go for a walk each morning and evening. He would put his hands on the shoulders of those on either side. These companions would be Bapu’s ‘walking sticks’. We children were always given top choice for this job.
Whether his human walking sticks were really any help to him, only Bapu could say. But being chosen always made us swell with pride. Each morning and evening, we would start out from Bapu’s place, walk to the main gate of Sabarmati prison, then turn back. Bapu’s pace was always too brisk for us.
But as we neared the prison gate-if he wasn’t engaged in serious discussion-he would almost run the last fifty yards or so. Sometimes we would remove Bapu’s hands from our shoulders and dash to the gate.
Sometimes Bapu would put his entire weight on our shoulders, lift his feet off the ground, and shout: ‘Come on, Boss, let’s see how you run!’
Bapu used to nickname those he cared about, often bestowing more than one name. Among the many showered on me was ‘Boss’. Bapu kept close contact with every person in the ashram. He maintained a deep interest in their diet and living conditions.
When they were ill, he would visit them twice a day. In every aspect of their individual or collective discipline, Bapu guided them directly or indirectly.
The ashram had its rules-always strict, often stern, sometimes harsh as well. Bapu made these rules. His word was final in how they were applied. In these ways, Bapu could be seen as the patriarch of a large, extended family.
But my personal view of Bapu-and I believe the view of the other ashram children-was completely different. For us, he was never the stern disciplinarian. To us, he was above all a friend. Let’s take the example of the dining hall.
All ashramites ate their meals in this hall. The ringing of the ashram bell would call us to the meal. At the second ringing of the bell, the dining hall doors closed. With the third ringing prayers began.
Once, I got late. Just as I was climbing the stairs, the bell rang for the second time. The dining hall doors slammed shut.
Now, which child anywhere on earth has adhered to the rules and regulations regarding meals? Just the same, a closed door now stood between me and my food. I imagined the scene in the hall. People would be sitting on the floor in four rows. Their plates would have been filled with rice, vegetables, milk and slices of yeast bread.
My mother, working in the kitchen, would be worrying over my absence. Bapu, sitting near the door, would be looking at everyone with a smile.
I began to sing: ‘Open the gates, O Lord, open the gates of your temple.’
All was quiet in the dining hall, so my young voice carried inside. Bapu burst into laughter, and the doors swung open. I once had a personal taste of Bapu’s style of fighting.
Once, a family-friend sent some toys for me. There were plenty of places to play in the ashram, but few toys. So, we were always happy to get them.
But to our misfortune, the toys sent for me were foreign-made. At that time, the national boycott of foreign goods was in full swing. Bapu had himself initiated this.
So, when the toys arrived, Bapu confiscated them. Our ‘secret police’ (a group of children) informed us that some toys had been sent for me, and that Bapu had hidden them. We prepared to take up arms against this gross injustice.
To launch our struggle, we decided to send a deputation to Bapu. I was selected the spokesperson. Our delegation arrived at Bapu’s cottage.
My father, who was Bapu’s chief secretary, was sitting as usual at Bapu’s side, writing. I fired the first volley: ‘Is it true that some toys have come from Bombay?’
Bapu was busy writing.
But he looked up from his work and said: ‘Yes, it’s true.’
‘Where did you put my toys?’ I asked. ‘They’re over there on that shelf,’ Bapu said, pointing.
The toys were not hidden at all. And there was a whole basketful of them!
‘Hand over those toys!’ I insisted.
When justice is on your side, why beat around the bush?
But then Bapu began to set out his own argument: ‘You know that the toys are foreign-made, don’t you?’
If Bapu himself had set up the boycott of foreign goods, how could ashram children play with foreign-made toys? That was Bapu’s line of reasoning. But at our age, how could we understand such things?
‘I know nothing about that. I only know they’re my toys. So you have to let me have them.’
I asserted my rights. But suddenly Bapu gave the argument a new twist: ‘Can we play with foreign-made toys?’
In that word ‘we’, Bapu played his trump card. In just one sentence, Bapu had placed me and him on the same side of the fence. As I was losing my right to play with those toys, Bapu was giving up his own.
By showing me that he had shared that right, the responsibility he had taken on became mine also.
‘We have ourselves launched the boycott of foreign goods, and if we play with foreign goods here at home…’
But Bapu didn’t have to pursue the argument. Seeing their spokesman unnerved, the other members of the delegation were already slipping away.
If Gandhi was Bapu, then what did I call my own father? I called him ‘uncle’.
Uncle’s work as chief secretary entailed going through Bapu’s mail, writing some replies, dealing with people who had come to talk with Bapu, taking notes of important discussions and meetings, and writing or translating articles for Bapu’s weeklies.
Besides these standard assignments, he might prepare a book, write articles for dailies, or address public gatherings. Work with Bapu was an extraordinarily heavy load.
For years on end, I watched uncle work at least 15 hours a day. Yet in the 25 years uncle was with Bapu, he took off from work only twice. These were the two times he was sick.
What was amazing was how well uncle coped with this load. The key to this feat was the complete identification he had developed with Bapu. In this relationship was a rare fusion of devotion to a superior, and allegiance to a colleague.
Uncle had an independent personality completely different from Bapu’s. Yet the degree of psychic unity between the two was astonishing. In writing, Bapu was pragmatic, a master of brevity. Uncle’s personal writing, on the other hand, was lavishly lyrical.
And yet uncle had mastered Bapu’s style in his articles. Readers of Bapu’s weeklies would often comment that, without the initials at the end of the articles, they wouldn’t know whether the author was M.D.-Mahadev Desai-or M.K.G.-Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Whatever articles uncle wrote for the weeklies would always first go to Bapu for approval. Bapu would go through them carefully and correct them if needed.
But many times Bapu would find an article so close to his own thinking, that he would initial the article himself and it would be published as his.
I once witnessed a remarkable example of the psychic unison between Bapu and uncle. The two were standing in front of Bapu’s cottage.
Suddenly Bapu said: ‘Mahadev, take this down.’
Bapu began dictating and uncle started writing. After a while, I noticed that before Bapu could say what he wanted to, uncle would figure out what it was and write it down. At one point, Bapu dictated a word that was different from what uncle had written.
So he interrupted Bapu: ‘Why did you use this word?’
Bapu was somewhat amused. But he was particular about the usage of words.
‘Mahadev, I would never use any word but the one I dictated.’
There followed a discussion on which word was more appropriate. In the end, the Bapu’s word was retained-but only after he conceded that the word Mahadev had written was also correct.
On August 8, 1942, Bapu called on the British to ‘Quit India’ and announced plans for a nationwide campaign of resistance. That same night, he, uncle, and several others were arrested. They were imprisoned in the Aga Khan palace.
Within six days, uncle passed away. Mother and I were denied permission to visit Bapu at this time. But it was granted later, when Bapu began a fast.
A barbed wire fence, 11 ft high, had been set up around the palace. Seventy-six gunmen were on guard. Bapu, weak from fasting, lay on a cot halfway along the palace’s long verandah.
We remained in the palace for three weeks. We seldom talked to Bapu, for fear of straining him. But I had almost continual talks with Pyarelal, who had taken over as Bapu’s chief secretary.
It was from these talks that I discovered Bapu did not approve of the sabotage of government property. I had been in favour of such actions. I too had planned to burn mailboxes. I had made contacts with gangs of saboteurs and had published underground bulletins.
I believed that, short of destroying life or the property of individuals, there was no act that nonviolence ruled out. Pyarelal patiently listened to all of this.
But gradually he tried to show me how damage to any property was violent, how any secrecy hurt a nonviolent struggle.
Violence was the government’s ways, not ours. I came to understand that the path I had favoured was wrong. At one point Bapu called me to him.
Pyarelal told him: ‘You still think of him as little Babla. But he discusses the national situation with me. We’ve been having an involved debate on nonviolence.’
I felt bashful. Bapu smiled and turned to me.
‘Since you were discussing nonviolence, you should know that my own idea of it has evolved. Earlier, I believed that if there was violence in one part of the country, it would not allow the use of nonviolence anywhere. Today I believe nonviolence must shed its small light in the midst of even the fiercest storm of violence.’
Even a moment’s encounter with the righteous-face to face, or in remembrances such as these-can be a boat that carries you across the sea of life.
Narayan Desai is the son of Mahatma Gandhi’s chief secretary Mahadev Desai. Excerpted from his book Gandhi Through A Child’s Eye, Ocean Tree Books, P.O. Box 1295, Santa Fe, NM 87504 USA
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